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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Thursday, June 12, 2003

Caution urged when buying vendor food

Advertiser Staff

State Health Department officials are warning consumers to beware of food-related illnesses linked to unlicensed vendors and caterers.

Brian J.J. Choy, chief of the Health Department's sanitation branch, said factors including people trying to make money in a slow economy, the increase in graduation and wedding parties and the hot weather create conditions that can make people sick.

Choy said before buying that bargain poke from the roadside truck or purchasing barbecued meat from an unfamiliar caterer, people should be alert that food prepared or stored at the wrong temperature can be hazardous to your health.

He said problem foods in the past have included lau lau, kalua pork, smoked meat, pasteles, poke, fish and baked goods with eggs such as custard pies. "People are taking risks," Choy said.

Choy said the department has yet to release food poisoning statistics for the past 18 months, but noted that reported cases of food poisoning have averaged 333 per year for 1999 through 2001. In addition, it is believed many cases of food poisoning go unreported

He said a recent complaint came after 11 people turned up with a staph infection linked to unrefrigerated barbecued pork sold as a fund-raiser.

Choy suggests checking for Department of Health permits before buying from vendors. Cold food should be kept at 45 degrees or colder and hot food at 140 degrees or hotter.

Becky Kanenaka, food-borne disease program coordinator, urged people to verify that their caterer is certified to make sure they are trained in food safety. She said people who cook every day for their family think they can just as easily prepare food for large crowds.

"People don't realize that cooking for large quantities can be more difficult," especially when it comes to keeping hot food hot enough to serve and cold enough to store, Kanenaka said.

Choy noted that when fish such as mackerel, ahi, akule, mahimahi aren't stored correctly, people can develop scombroid poisoning, which causes a reaction in some people who eat it. Reactions range from hives to constricting of the throat.

Usually people are safe in buying mangoes and other fruit, and corn and other vegetables as well as baked goods such as breads and cookies, he said.

The health hotline for reporting a food-related illness on O'ahu is 566-5049 and the toll-free Neighbor Island number is (800) 360-2575.

Choy said the department's staff isn't big enough to monitor vendors weekly but does check occasionally. He said enforcement usually starts with a reprimand but can result in a fine. He said a Kaua'i woman who was selling food without the proper permit was fined more than $2,000.